"X" by Melanie Haney
Abby burned herself and is now bending over the sink, numbing her thumb in a stream of cold water. Caleb, her son, is perched on the deck railing. Through the window above the sink, she can see the back of his buzzed blond head, fuzzy like a peach.
He has been squinting at the horizon ever since he came home from school and Abby had to tell him that their plans had changed. The plan had been to leave in the morning for a week of camping near a local water park. A happy summer vacation. Something she had been saving for months. Countless extra shifts at the diner. Countless extra hours of asking decaf or regular? Countless explanations of the specials (that never are) and countless more tables to clear with nickels and dimes piled together on coffee stained checks beside plates of abandoned home fries or green beans, swimming in butter or ketchup.
Instead, this morning, his father took the luggage from under their beds and filled them with piles of A-frame t-shirts and Wal-mart polos and Wranglers. He shoved his Old Spice and razors into the front pockets and zipped them without a word.
There was a long rambling announcement, as he stood in the door frame, screen door propped open by his boot. Abby held arms across her waist as the words washed over her. Her lips were open, but she couldn’t speak. He explained, he couldn’t handle this whole thing anymore - all this marital bliss - this meatloaf at seven on tray tables while watching Pat Sajak and that skinny woman applaud as morons whoop and holler and spin that damn wheel. Or worse, listening as his own damned wife claps along like it’s her winning the money, when all they really have is this: Swanson dinner’s and no air conditioning.
Don’t you think I’d like air conditioning too? she found her voice and called out after him, but he was already gone. Off and disappeared in the wake of the dust cloud left by Caleb’s school bus.
Tonight she has made chicken patties with green beans from a can and French fries - Krinkle-Kut brand. It’s what she burned her thumb on, lifting the pan of fries from the oven. She laughed at the irony when it happened, but now stares down at the pink, blistering skin and her eyes well.
Caleb’s father, had once been a Krinkle-Kut man. He worked in the factory and would come home smelling like grease and salt. It was back when their baby was still new and Abby stayed home to nurse. They lived on food pantry donations - canned corn and tomato sauce, boxes of macaroni, jelly for sandwiches on day old bread. But for Friday dinners, they feasted on frozen hamburger patties cooked on the stovetop and French fries smuggled home in his lunch box.
Abby remembers the swagger he’d had, walking through the door of their small apartment after his first payday - eighteen years old, the world in his pocket.
Pockets that grew holes and let the world slide right out.
Dinner’s ready, Abby calls to Caleb, still on his perch, twilight and mosquitos be damned. Ready to come in yet?
This can’t go on all night, Abby thinks as she sits at the kitchen table and watches her son’s back, stiff and unchanging. Unless, he takes after his father, she says under her breath and almost smiles, then almost cries.
A few weeks earlier, their air conditioner had started to rattle and shake, rumbling the wall in their bedroom so much so that she couldn’t sleep and she wondered if maybe the heat might be worth it for even a moment of silence. She watched her husband in his sleep and thought of kissing his stubbled chin and cheek. How long had it been since she’d smelled the skin of his neck? She closed her eyes and was far away, on her own pillow and drifting. The air conditioner died in before dawn.
Dammit, Abby, was all he said in the morning, as though she had killed it herself.
Watching Caleb wait for headlights that aren’t going to appear, Abby stands to fix herself some iced tea and then sees her son finally move. He crosses his pointer-fingers, one over the other and lifts them to the star-pocked sky.
X-marks the spot.
It was a game his dad had taught him when he was only three and he wanted him out of his hair for a few minutes to watch a race and drink a beer. You see, son, he’d said, X-marks the spot, like a treasure hunt. See, you take your two fingers, just like that and they make an X, you see? Now it’s your treasure finder, like pirates. So why don’t you go and see if you can’t find us somethin’ nice and let me know.
Rubber bouncy balls, balsa wood airplanes, jump rope. These were the treasures of Caleb’s past, the trinket’s he’d bring to his father’s feet while Abby microwaved their dinners and life moved forward as it always had. Not like tonight, with the hem of the night sky coming undone all around and no one to tell them what’s next.
On the refrigerator, Abby sees the calendar and tomorrow circled in a big black swoosh. Tomorrow. Vacation. A break. A breather. Nothing like today. Nothing like any of the days that led her to this room, this kitchen with the smell of Krinkle-Kut french fries lingering in the air like a sweltering ghost.
She gathers the uneaten plates of cold food and scrapes their dinners into the garbage.
Afterward, she walks to the door, to the porch, to her son. He’s sitting in an symphony of crickets at twilight, swaying his small feet over the deck railing. His head is tilted to the darkening purple sky, but his hands are still now and laying on his lap. X.
Running her fingers over the soft fuzz of his scalp, she leans in close enough to touch her nose to his cheek. C’mon, she tells him softly, We’ve got packing to do.
About the Author: Melanie holds her MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and was the first winner of the Family Circle Fiction Contest in 2007. Her short stories have appeared in Family Circle Magazine and in numerous literary journals, in print, and online, including Fifth Wednesday Journal, Blue Earth Review, Relief, the ELM, Quality Women’s Fiction, and is forthcoming in Clockhouse.
She live in New Hampshire, where she is a photographer, wife and homeschooling mother of four rambunctious kids. She is a featured contributor at The Foundry’s blog, www.thisisthecommunity.com, where she shares about the intersection of family and faith. She documents her personal life and family adventures on her blog, www.thefrozenmoon.com.
Instagram - @Simpymella